We all have to face an audience at some point in our lives, even if we never step on a stage as a professional. It’s the job interview, the speech at the wedding, the presentation at work, the school play. At these times, any one of us can feel what it’s like to be a performer. And it’s not easy.
It’s completely natural to feel anticipation, excitement and/or nerves at the thought of performing. In fact I’d argue that you need a degree of this to do a good performance, as otherwise you’re not truly engaged with what you’re doing, or you don’t care enough about it.
In most circumstances and for most people, performing is pretty heavy shit – you are putting yourself in front of people in a situation where you may mistakes, or they may reject you. To be honest, you may as well go and stand there naked, as that’s what it can feel like. Every time a performer steps on to a stage you are exposing yourself to the possibility of horrible, humiliating failure in front of (a lot of) people.
So it’s only natural that our bodies react to this. What happens physically is that the anticipation of performing gives us a jolt of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. This causes a number of things; heart rate and breathing increase, the pupils of the eyes dilate, we may blush, sweat or feel lightheaded, our limbs shake as our body wants to assume a foetal position and the digestive system shuts down, causing a knotted stomach and/or nausea. More extreme reactions can include the desire to run away screaming.
Controlling this natural anxiety can be the difference between success and failure. For a natural performer, that anticipation and excitement can show itself in the desire to “get out there and do it”, but there can be times when even the most seasoned performer has difficulties.
Right at the start of the QAL adventure, Adam had what can only be described as a baptism of fire with the Kiev concert. He had performed with Queen at the MTV awards the previous year, but this was in a much more familar, controlled situation. Kiev was an entirely different animal; Elton John was also on the bill and the expected audience would be in the region of 300,000 with the concert being televised to millions more viewers in Ukraine and Poland.
And this was a real, bona-fide, no safety net live performance. No lip synching, no tapes, no autotune, nowhere to hide. Massive audience who know every word of the songs you’re going to sing, big screens and TV cameras in your face for the duration, ready to pick up the tiniest error.
Live performance is dangerous. When the 2014 QAL tour was announced in the official press conference, Brian alluded to it more than once.
(video from Queen Official’s YouTube uploads)
The whole interview is interesting, but if you want to skip forward, “danger” is directly referred to at around 2’45” and 4’0”. This is the whole point of live performance – there are lots of variable elements and all sorts of opportunities for things to go wrong. Of course for a lot of performers, that is precisely why they do it, as they love the adrenaline rush it provides.
However, the element of danger is why, across the length and breadth of the performing arts world, some people just don’t do live performance. There are lots of actors out there who do film and TV work, but would never do a stage play. Likewise with music – there are plenty of people who stick to recordings, or who lip synch their performances to save them taking the risk of singing live.
For the Kiev concert, there was no way round the danger; Adam had to step out on to the stage with Brian and Roger, and find a way of conquering the nerves.
I’ve now watched a considerable amount of YouTube footage of Adam performing in all sorts of circumstances and it’s very rare to see much in the way of performance anxiety from him. He has stated in interviews that he loves performing and as he has done it from such a young age he has learnt to control the effects of nerves.
(video from Ginny’s YouTube uploads)
Kiev was different; in this first clip from the concert you can see and even hear that he is battling with himself. I can imagine what it must have felt like to hear the introduction from Flash Gordon and then walk out into that explosion of sound and light, with a sea of people before him.
There is a trace of a tremble in his voice initially; he gets over this fairly quickly, but you can see the anxiety in his eyes, mingled with intense concentration.
When you’re doing a live performance, even when you’re confident and enjoying yourself, there are a lot of possible pitfalls:
- Memory – you absolutely have to know your material forwards, backwards and inside out so that you can get through it on automatic pilot if something goes wrong. The way our memories work are very complex, but most people learn music aurally (i.e. by the sound) or photographically (by being able to store an image of the music in their mind). Unless you have a truly photographic memory, there is no way round this other than hard work. No matter how much work you do on memorising your material, when you step on stage it never feels enough. You stand there and you can’t remember one single word. Memory failures are one of the biggest causes of severe performance anxiety – it’s that “fear of failure” thing, and forgetting the words can be really obvious to an audience. Also, the fear of a memory lapse can be as bad as the actuality of it; you worry about it happening even if it doesn’t happen, and if it does happen it causes instant, crippling fear.
- Distraction – this can happen at any time, to anybody. There can be a disapproving face in the audience or someone could be taken ill, but an incident like this can take you “out of the zone”. Memory is often the first thing to be affected, but a hostile reaction, even if it’s only from one person, can affect confidence and set off an anxiety chain reaction.
- Illness – knowing you’re under par can affect confidence and induce greater anxiety than usual. I take my hat off to the way that the guys handled the illness of first Brian and then Adam in February, because there was a tremendous team effort to get everyone through it without the great majority of the audience noticing that there was anything wrong. They did a great job of watching each others’ backs and compensating for the person who was under par.
- Your own personality type – there are introvert performers and extrovert performers. It sounds a cliché, but there are a lot of performers out there – including Freddie – who are very different people the moment they step on to a stage. Their onstage persona may be larger than life, but the person within can be more fragile. These individuals are probably more prone to the effects of performance anxiety as if they have any inherent self-doubt, then if something goes wrong it have long lasting effects
- Sudden onset of stage fright – unfortunately this can happen to any performer at any time. Sometimes this can be fixed, and sometimes not. Barbra Streisand had a memory lapse in a live concert in 1967 and it was decades before she returned to live performance. Robbie Williams had similar problems in 2006 and only returned to the stage in 2013. Every performer needs to be aware that stage fright can appear from nowhere – it’s the ultimate demon for all of us. This is dear to my heart as I have suffered badly from it. Whether I will ever conquer it, I don’t know, but it’s the reason I stepped back from opera five years ago. Oddly enough, writing this is starting to give me my singing mojo back, so maybe I’ll make some progress.
Every performer has to find ways of managing the anxiety. Some people use hypnotherapy, mindfulness or yoga to put them in the zone. Using alcohol is common, but this is a two-edged sword as although it can reduce inhibition – the old “Dutch courage” – it can affect memory. Some people have to take a break from it, regroup and try again, and there are a few who ultimately feel that the agony of performing just isn’t worth it.
The best way to manage anxiety is through positive emotion – back to the QAL interview, and Adam is very clear that having fun, feeling and giving joy to the audience and also having good chemistry with fellow performers are all key elements to a great performance.
(video from Ginny’s YouTube uploads)
Fast forward to later in the concert and we see a much more relaxed Adam and I’m sure that this is down to the support from Brian and Roger; what better way to start the metamorphosis into a rock superstar than sharing a stage with these guys?
When the 2014 tour was announced, Adam admitted to being incredibly nervous for the Kiev concert and what a massive step-up it had been to him in comparison to what he had done before, but Brian makes the very good point that everything that’s worth doing is a little scary (scan forward in the interview to about 7’30”).
All of us could probably note that for life in general.